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You can’t trust health supplements. GNC wants to change that.

Scott Olson Getty Images News
  1. Supplement retailer GNC announced today that it'll expand its testing processes — going beyond federal requirements — to ensure their supplements are accurately labeled.
  2. The announcement is a response to a February investigation by the New York attorney general's office that found that many supplements don't actually contain the ingredients listed on their labels.
  3. While GNC is the biggest supplement retailer in America, it's still only a small segment of a very loosely regulated $33-billion-a-year industry. But even if the move doesn't have a broader impact, it is part of a growing conversation about the potential dangers and lax regulation of dietary supplements.

Your echinacea doesn't actually contain echinacea


There's a chance that the echinacea you buy in the store doesn't actually have echinacea — and that a bottle of St. John's wort has absolutely none of that ingredient, either. This is what the New York attorney general's office found in an incredible February crackdown on the quality of the most popular botanical supplements being sold at Walgreen, Walmart, GNC, and Target earlier this year.

After the investigation, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sent cease-and-desist orders outlining the findings of the investigation and demanding that the stores remove these products from their shelves.

Today, one chain — GNC — announced its agreement with the AG. According to a New York Times report, "The company said it would in the next 18 months put in place additional quality-control measures to restore the trust of its customers and set new standards for the rest of the industry."

GNC will use DNA testing to ensure the purity of the ingredients in its supplements and that the products actually contain what they promise on the label. As the company said in a statement, these measures should "provide consumers even greater confidence in its products."

While it's not clear what the other three retailers will do, Schneiderman told the Times that he has encouraged these retailers, "as well as all herbal supplements manufacturers, to join GNC in working with my office to increase transparency and safeguard the wellness of their customers."

"No DNA from echinacea was identified"

The reason for the new rule is simple: the findings of the state authority were embarrassingly bad, and a response from the retailers was mandated by law.

The AG ran multiple DNA tests on some of the most popular herbal supplements at the four national retailers. They found four out of five products they looked at did not actually contain any of the ingredients listed on their labels. Instead, these pills were stuffed with fillers such as rice, garlic, and wheat.

At GNC, for example, the AG looked at six GNC "Herbal Plus" supplements. Testing on the ginseng, St. John's wort, gingko biloba, echinacea, and saw palmetto pills revealed these products were all filled with herbs not listed on the label, and most were missing the key ingredients they promised to deliver.

A regulatory loophole

Watch John Oliver explain why supplement regulation is so lax. (Via YouTube)

The reason these pills can get on store shelves in sometimes-shoddy form is because they aren't regulated as stringently as other health products.

Supplement manufacturers are not required to prove their products are safe or that they actually do what they are marketed for in humans. They're only required to contain what they list on their labels. (To understand exactly how these pills evaded regulation for so long, watch this excellent John Oliver clip. The bottom line: fierce lobbying efforts and a few influential lawmakers with close ties to the industry have over the past several decades pushed back bills that would bring supplement regulation closer in line with pharmaceutical regulation.)

So these pills can be promoted for weight loss or any number of health benefits, with no real evidence backing the claims.

Previous research has shown that supplements may also contain new ingredients that have never been tested before and may be dangerous for people, and the Food and Drug Administration estimates that 70 percent of supplement manufacturers don't follow the very basic labeling requirements.

What's more, there's no organized approach to collecting information about the adverse effects related to supplements. "So the combination of no human trials before these products reach store shelves combined with fact we have no systematic way of detecting harm — it's like throwing a match into a forest during a drought," said Pieter Cohen, a supplement expert and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.

The real significance of the GNC move

According to Cohen, the real significance of today’s announcement is to highlight that "until today retailers haven’t even been compliant with the minimal legal requirements governing supplements." (That is, the law mandating that their ingredient labels are accurate).

But even so, the change may not have much of an impact. "This is a simple statement that what’s on the label will be in the bottle. This is mandated by the law," said Cohen. "What’s amazing is that it has taken 20 years for a major retailer to say they will fully respect the law."

As well, the move only relates to GNC-brand products, not all products on sale at GNC. "That one retailer will have better labeling practices does nothing to address the fact that retailers still aren't required to prove safety or effectiveness," added Cohen.

Still, this latest move by GNC is part of a growing conversation about the potential dangers of supplement use and need for better regulation. Liver damage and failure from these pills has been a well-documented problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the weight-loss supplement OxyElite Pro caused nearly 100 people in 16 states to develop hepatitis, leading to liver replacements, hospitalization, and even death.

Until there's a more robust regulatory process, it has to be buyer beware. "No consumer product should kill you," said Cohen. "With supplements, we accept it's okay to take these pills, even if they might lead to a heart attack or stroke. To me it's mind-boggling that we accept this."